Posted by: Jeff | April 19, 2011

Reaction to the Three Cups of Tea Debacle

If you haven’t seen it already, Jon Krakauer’s piece in the newly-minted Byliner is a must read.  Titled “Three Cups of Deceit”, it is a brutal and piecemeal dissection of the blatant falsehoods of Greg Mortensen, New York Times best-selling author of Three Cups of Tea, a “memoir” chronicling the author’s efforts in building schools and funding education in remote regions of Pakistan and Afghanistan.

It’s a devastating piece, not only for Mortensen, who is skewered so thoroughly that it is hard to imagine what defense could possibly be raised.  No, it is also devastating for the thousands who heard or read of Mortensen and felt compelled to spread the word about this man bringing the light of education to remote regions threatened by the dark specter of radical fundamentalism and terror.  Many attended his lectures, organized events to raise awareness, or donated their hard-earned money to help Mortensen further his mission.  Many of those that gave money were children themselves, eager to help their fellow students in Afghanistan and Pakistan gain access to education available to the more privileged.

How disappointing it is to learn of the house of cards constructed by Mortensen.  Lying about the origin mythology of his Central Asia Institute, the organization created by Mortensen to conduct his work in Pakistan and Afghanistan, is only the start.  The disappointments extend to how Mortensen unabashedly rigged his organization’s finances to boost book sales, resisting efforts by his own Board of Directors to rein in spending and bring to light expenditures.  They also extend to the impact that the CAI has had in Central Asia.  Krakauer details how projects were created out of thin air, embellished, or hailed as success stories without any basis in fact.  More disheartening still, he tells of local Afghans and Pakistanis, so soured on CAI and Mortensen that they share stories of failed promises, neglect, and empty schools built without even the funding to procure teachers.

The media has already pounced upon Krakauer’s methodological dissection of fact and fiction in Mortensen’s books and seized upon the narrative that another best-selling author has been caught passing a web of lies off as a memoir.  But unlike James Frey and his million little pieces, Mortensen’s book masks a much larger problem.  Mortensen used these lies to actively solicit donations to an organization that lied about how it would use the money it collected.  CAI’s website proclaims that 85% of all donations go directly to programming, and that only 15% is spent on administrative overhead.  Yet upon further analysis of CAI’s financial records, Krakauer concludes that the amount spent on programming is in reality less than 50%, a result caused in part by generous definitions of programming and bloated travel budgets:

What this statement fails to disclose is that for accounting purposes, CAI reports the millions of dollars it spends on book advertising and chartered jets as “program expenses,” rather than as fundraising or other overhead.  Were they reported honestly, CAI’s fundraising and administrative expenses would actually exceed 50 percent of its annual budget.  In 2009, according to an audited financial report, CAI spent just under $4 million building and operating schools in Pakistan and Afghanistan, a sum that includes construction costs, school supplies, teachers’ salaries, student scholarships, and travel expenses for program managers.  In the same year, CAI spent more than $4.6 million on “Domestic outreach and education, lectures and guest appearances across the United States” – an amount that included $1.7 million to promote Mortensen’s books.  CAI reported all $4.6 million on its tax return as expenses for “programs.” [….]

In 2009, schoolchildren donated $1.7 million to Pennies for Peace.  But CAI’s total 2009 outlay for the things P4P is supposed to pay for – teachers’ salaries, student scholarships, school supplies, basic operating expenses – amounted to a paltry $612,000.  By comparison, in 2009 CAI spent more than $1 million to promote sales of Three Cups of Tea and Stones into Schools, and another $1.4 million to fly Mortensen around in chartered jets.

When I donate money to an organization pledging to do development work, I do so with the implicit hope that what money I donate will do some good.  In the case of CAI, where less than half of all donations were spent in Afghanistan or Pakistan, this hope is diminished.  It is nearly extinguished entirely upon the realization that what money that did make it to Afghanistan for the purpose of building schools was often mis-allocated or inappropriately spent.  Schools were built without any capacity for actually maintaining or running them.  What good are buildings if there are no teachers to occupy them?  Krakauer tells of dozens of schools across Northern Afghanistan and Pakistan that sit vacant, having been built for thousands of dollars by CAI without any plan in place for providing teachers or materials to local school children.

It becomes clear that what may have started off as a well-intentioned endeavor by Mortensen to do good quickly became a venue through which Mortensen increased his own public image and financed a lifestyle of travel and luxury.

As a student of development, this whole saga is disheartening for so many reasons.  First, the impact on the ground has not been as positive as advertised.  By making up success stories, Mortensen concealed what has largely been an ineffective and poorly-executed program.  Instead of funneling money toward productive uses, CAI spent millions on building infrastructure local communities were ill-prepared to maintain.  Second, it highlights that good intentions are not enough.  By not engaging with local communities to gauge their needs and capacities, Mortensen’s organization may have actually hindered development efforts.  Third, Mortensen’s portrayal of his partners and liaisons in Pakistan and Afghanistan as backward, radical, and allies of the Taliban only serves to alienate local citizens from his purported mission.

Fourth, the corruption and thoroughly disingenuous nature of Mortensen’s interactions with donors discredits the entire development community.  Who will be so eager to donate money to future development projects in the wake of being had so convincingly by a con artist like Mortensen?  Fifth, it is a shocking blow to the hundreds of students of development and international education who, having read Three Cups of Tea or heard Mortensen speak, actively pursued careers in the development field or promoted programs and organizations reinforcing his mission.  This betrayal will reverberate deeply within the community of professionals who labor so hard to engage with Afghan and Pakistani citizens to promote development there.  Sixth, this is an embarrassing setback for U.S. national efforts throughout the Central Asian region to promote education and development as a military objective in the Afghan theater.  Locals, already skeptical of U.S. involvement and claims of good intentions, will doubtless be wary of hidden agendas.

As Naimat Gul, Mortensen’s guide through Waziristan who was later characterized by Mortensen in his book as a Taliban abductor, laments:

I was shocked.  Instead of telling the world about our frustration, deprivation, illiteracy, and tradition of hospitality, he invented a false story about being abducted by savages.  I do not understand why he did this.

Optimists may choose to believe that Mortensen lied in order to create a more alluring hook for potential donors eager to bring enlightenment to uneducated Central Asia.  But pessimists will no doubt look to sales figures for Three Cups of Tea – as well as the exclusive royalties accrued by its two co-authors – and shake their head.

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